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Handwritten primary votes won't be counted  (VA)
WESLEY P. HESTER    Richmond Times-Dispatch    27 February 2008

The 299 Chesterfield County votes handwritten on blank paper for the Virginia presidential primary do not count.

The State Board of Elections yesterday certified the statewide results of the primary without the 299 Democratic votes, which Chesterfield election officials allowed to be written on blank pieces of paper after nine precincts ran out of printed ballots.

"The state board's hands are tied," said Nancy Rodrigues, secretary for the board, noting that the investigation into Chesterfield's handling of the primary is continuing.

Rodrigues made the motion to approve the results without the handwritten votes saying, "I do that with a heavy heart."

A review team appointed by the state board found the votes to be illegal according to state code, which specifies that only official votes can be counted, Rodrigues said.

She acknowledged that there are provisions in the state code for emergency ballots, but not handwritten ones. She indicated that if election officials had made photocopies of Democratic ballots rather than having voters write them on loose paper, they might be counted.

One code section says that "any ballot marked so that the intent of the voter is clear shall be counted" but also states that it must be an official paper ballot.

"We are bound to follow the code of Virginia there are reasons the code exists," Rodrigues said. "Now it is the responsibility of the board to ensure that this will never happen again."

Chairman John N. Clifford of the Chesterfield Electoral Board yesterday defended his decision to allow the votes and the county's subsequent decision to count them. Clifford said people were threatening to leave the polls without voting if an immediate solution was not found.

"We were having more ballots printed and delivered," he said. "The issue wasn't making the ballots; it was the time it took to get them to the precincts."

Chesterfield election officials resubmitted their results Monday morning, stating in a letter that the state's review team had misread their results.

In response, the state board announced Monday afternoon that it still had issues with the results and summoned Chesterfield officials to a meeting next week to discuss the county's election process.

"The meeting next week should have been held before they took this vote," Clifford said yesterday. "I'm frankly surprised that after the 2000 election in Florida a Democratically controlled board would decide not to count every vote. And I'm distressed that they would do it without any input from us."

Rodrigues said her team has been working with county officials, but said there was no wiggle room on the law. She added that Chesterfield was the only locality in Virginia to have issues of ballot availability.

"The code is very clear on this particular issue," she said. "We're tremendously lucky to have this not affect the outcome, but that doesn't make it any less important."

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois won the statewide Democratic primary with about 278,000 more votes than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Clifford, who will retire from the Electoral Board this week, said the state board could have decided differently.

"I think they had it within their discretion to count them, and I think they should have counted the votes," Clifford said. He added that the state needs to have more-specific provisions for emergency situations such as Chesterfield's.

Chesterfield Registrar Lawrence C. Haake III is due before the county Board of Supervisors this afternoon to account for the primary day events, including the ballot shortage and long lines. He could not be reached for comment yesterday after the certification by the State Board of Elections.

The total vote count certified by the state for Chesterfield's primary was 61,673. That's 299 votes shy of the county's reported 61,972.

The Democratic primary count was 38,481, with 27,328 of those going to Obama. In the Republican primary, 23,192 were cast, with Arizona Sen. John McCain edging former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee by more than 1,000 votes.

Chesterfield election officials will meet with the State Board of Elections on March 5 at 10 a.m. in the General Assembly Building to discuss the election. The public is encouraged to attend.


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